Efforts to protect vulnerable environmental resources have focused largely on legal prohibitions and sanctions or on economic rewards or penalties. The role and importance of social and cultural factors have been much less considered. While theoretical arguments have addressed whether state institutions must be involved in resource protection, or whether private incentives can be manipulated to achieve desired outcomes, this preoccupation with either public sector or private sector solutions to the problems of environmental conservation has caused a neglect of social values and community consensus. The analysis offered here seeks to enlarge the debate from being two-sided to three-cornered.
By bringing in a third set of considerations, the socio-cultural, the analysis underscores that individual decisions are embedded in community and local contexts. All three kinds of incentives are considered to be potentially of equal importance for resource-conserving behaviour (RCB) vis-à-vis resource-degrading behaviour (RDB). The analysis is concerned first with the strength of different incentives in favour of RCB compared to RDB, comparing legal and economic with socio-cultural considerations affecting RCB and RDB. Efforts to protect vulnerable resources can seek to alter in an RCB direction the attitudes and incentives of people along any or all of these three dimensions of motivation, or they can seek to make a particular domain of motivation more salient if it is supportive of environmental conservation.
This analysis is proposed in part to get the socio-cultural domain taken more seriously alongside the legal and economic domains, as well as to prompt more systematic consideration of different kinds of policies, investments, actions or pronouncements that could shift the net balance of incentives in favour of RCB. While the analysis is admittedly simplified, there is utility in encouraging focused comparisons and evaluations of conservation alternatives. Examples of efforts to promote RCB in Madagascar and Costa Rica are given to illustrate this.